Is Bar/Bat Mitzvah a Communal or Personal Rite?

The bar/bat mitzvah service now focuses on the child as individual, but the synagogue community should not suffer.

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In an old joke, a wealthy man wants an unusual bar mitzvah for his son. The caterer suggests a bar mitzvah in Jerusalem, followed by a safari in the Serengeti. At the game preserve all goes well until the procession comes to a complete stop in the middle of the grasslands. An hour passes and the man asks what the problem is. The caterer responds reassuringly, "You will just have to be patient. There is another bar mitzvah ahead of us." 

Another thematically similar dose of modern reality is an internet site touting the Adventure Rabbi, a service that creates bar/bat mitzvahs in the wilderness "that express the individual identity of the candidate." If the sheer extravagance of the self-indulged fuels the humor in the safari joke, the second is simply sad in its focus on unaffiliated individuals who are completely detached from the Jewish community.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah: Performance or Communal Ritual?

Individualism has been insinuating itself increasingly into religious ritual over the last 30 years. Given the apparent truth of the popular mantra that "we are all Jews by choice," religious ritual has had to evolve in ways that are attractive to individuals searching for personal meaning. The bar mitzvah is no exception. Rather than the children simply doing what they are supposed to do--to the degree to which they are capable--now children do their thing accompanied by fanfare and hoopla from parents and even rabbis. The focus, particularly in liberal communities, is often on children's achievements and performance skills as much as it is on their new responsibilities as members of the synagogue community.

bar mitzvah torahThe bar mitzvah speech--once a serious exploration of Jewish text--is now often a ritual in which the quest for individual meaning is given equal weight with the Torah, which embodies the values of the Jewish community. At many synagogues, half of the child's dvar Torah is devoted to a theme from the weekly portion and the other half is a discussion of "what it means to me." Certainly it is important that children understand how Torah study can affect their own lives, but this type of speech often shortchanges the Torah and its traditional commentators.

The Rights of Synagogue "Regulars"

As a member of a synagogue that now hosts bar/bat mitzvahs nearly every weekend, I witness many "new" ceremonies that highlight the child and family, but sometimes frustrate the congregation--the "regulars" who come to the synagogue every Shabbat to pray.

One new ritual is the presentation of the tallit (prayer shawl) by the parents, often accompanied by private and emotional words to the child. The parents sometimes focus on Jewish identification, but their interest is often just the child and who he or she is as a person. As a result, unrelated congregants feel like witnesses to what is intrinsically a private experience.

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Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.